China plays long game

U.S. eco­nomic, mil­i­tary dom­i­nance at stake as Bei­jing works to rule water­way

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY CARLO MUNOZ

As Wash­ing­ton and Bei­jing spar in a dan­ger­ous game of one-up­man­ship to de­ter­mine who will con­trol the strate­gi­cally crit­i­cal wa­ter­ways of the South China Sea, some de­fense ob­servers and re­gional an­a­lysts worry that the U.S. ef­fort will prove an ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity in the long term against the full weight of China’s grow­ing mil­i­tary and eco­nomic prow­ess.

China’s strat­egy of slowly but me­thod­i­cally build­ing up mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions in the Spratly Is­lands, the Scar­bor­ough Shoal, the Fiery Cross Reef and other strate­gic points within the sea, cou­pled with Bei­jing’s in­creas­ingly as­sertive ter­ri­to­rial claims, has el­e­vated ten­sions in Wash­ing­ton and unset­tled U.S. al­lies in the re­gion.

The White House and Pen­ta­gon have taken so­lace in the fact that China’s mil­i­tary am­bi­tions have been tem­pered by its com­mer­cial in­ter­ests, ac­cord­ing to a De­fense De­part­ment re­view of the coun­try’s strate­gic foot­print in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion.

“China still seeks to avoid di­rect and ex­plicit con­flict with the United States,” Pen­ta­gon an­a­lysts con­cluded in a re­port is­sued in April. “China’s lead­ers un­der­stand that in­sta­bil­ity or con­flict would jeop­ar­dize the peace­ful ex­ter­nal en­vi­ron­ment that has en­abled China’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.”

But some warn that Pen­ta­gon strate­gists are mak­ing a se­ri­ous mis­cal­cu­la­tion of China’s mil­i­tary goals and ca­pa­bil­i­ties, as well as of Amer­i­can pre­pared­ness to curb those am­bi­tions, by re­ly­ing on the be­lief that the coun­try’s eco­nomic needs will prove a durable bul­wark against mil­i­tary ac­tion in Asia.

“We be­lieved that Amer­i­can aid to a frag­ile China whose lead­ers thought like us would help China be­come a demo­cratic and peace­ful power with­out am­bi­tions of re­gional or even global dom­i­nance,” said Michael Pills­bury, di­rec­tor of the Hud­son In­sti­tute’s Cen­ter for Chi­nese Strat­egy. “Ev­ery one of the as­sump­tions be­hind that be­lief was wrong — dan­ger­ously so.”

China has taken a num­ber of steps “to send mes­sages to the rest of the world” about its will­ing­ness to de­fend its in­ter­ests, said Dean Cheng, se­nior re­search fel­low at The Her­itage Foun­da­tion’s Asian Stud­ies Cen­ter. Among those mes­sages: that Bei­jing is “in­flex­i­ble” in de­fend­ing its South China Sea claims and that it has em­barked on “ma­jor mil­i­tary re­forms which will make it a much more ca­pa­ble op­po­nent.”

Even the De­fense De­part­ment an­a­lysts noted that China is “fo­cused on de­vel­op­ing the ca­pa­bil­i­ties they deem nec­es­sary to de­ter or de­feat ad­ver­sary power pro­jec­tion and counter third-party — in­clud­ing U.S. — in­ter­ven­tion dur­ing a cri­sis or con­flict,” the April re­port states.

Over the long term, “China’s mil­i­tary mod­ern­iza­tion is pro­duc­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties that have the po­ten­tial to re­duce core U.S. mil­i­tary tech­no­log­i­cal ad­van­tages,” ac­cord­ing to the Pen­ta­gon.

The trends are not fa­vor­able: A Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies re­port this year man­dated by Congress con­cluded that China will have so many air­craft car­ri­ers in the area within 15 years that the sea will be “vir­tu­ally a Chi­nese lake, as the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mex­ico is for the United States to­day.”

This cat-and-mouse game be­tween China and the U.S. and its al­lies boiled over re­cently when Bei­jing scram­bled a team of fighter jets to track a U.S. war­ship as it sailed by a dis­puted patch of land in the heart of the South China Sea.

While such in­ci­dents in the past raised the hack­les of mil­i­tary lead­ers in Bei­jing and Wash­ing­ton, most were re­solved qui­etly through diplo­matic chan­nels. But the Chi­nese re­sponse to the U.S. ship’s tra­verse through the Fiery Cross was par­tic­u­larly sharp.

That re­sponse could sig­nal China’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to dom­i­nate the open seas as its shore­line be­comes in­creas­ingly backed by mil­i­tary force, the head of U.S. Pa­cific Com­mand told Congress.

China’s mil­i­tary is ac­tively “chang­ing the op­er­a­tional land­scape in the South China Sea,” Adm. Harry B. Har­ris Jr., com­man­der of the U.S. Pa­cific Com­mand, warned mem­bers of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee last year.

Af­ter decades of the U.S. mil­i­tary serv­ing as the de­ci­sive power and se­cu­rity ar­biter in the re­gion, China in re­cent years has pushed a dif­fer­ent mes­sage: It’s time for Wash­ing­ton to butt out. Ahead of broad-rang­ing talks this week be­tween top U.S. and Chi­nese diplo­mats and fi­nan­cial of­fi­cials, the lead Chi­nese ne­go­tia­tor told re­porters over the week­end that Wash­ing­ton should let coun­tries bor­der­ing the South China Sea work out their con­flicts on their own.

“In fact, the United States is not a claimant in the South China Sea dis­pute, and it has said it takes no position on ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes,” said Vice For­eign Min­is­ter Zheng Zeguang. “So we hope the U.S. can stick to its prom­ise and not choose sides, and in­stead base its stance on the rights and wrongs of the case.”

Rais­ing the stakes

Chi­nese com­man­ders in May or­dered a team of fighter jets into the skies above the Fiery Cross Reef near the Spratly Is­lands af­ter the USS Wil­liam P. Lawrence con­ducted a “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion op­er­a­tion” close to the reef, also claimed by Tai­wan, Viet­nam and the Philip­pines.

The U.S. ship’s course near the Fiery Cross, which Bei­jing main­tains falls within Chi­nese ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters, was also part of a sus­pected surveil­lance mis­sion to ob­serve the 10,000-foot run­way newly con­structed on the reef, Chi­nese of­fi­cials said.

“The ac­tion by the U.S. threat­ens China’s sovereignty and se­cu­rity, en­dan­gers the safety of peo­ple and fa­cil­i­ties on the reef and harms re­gional peace and sta­bil­ity,” Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry spokesman Lu Kang told the state-run Xinhua News Agency at the time. China “will con­tinue to take mea­sures to safe­guard our sovereignty and se­cu­rity.”

The U.S. war­ship’s mis­sion was a “sim­ple act of provo­ca­tion” de­signed to fur­ther in­flame re­gional ri­val­ries and em­bolden U.S. al­lies to take ac­tion against China, he said.

The Pen­ta­gon de­fended the ac­tion, not­ing that the Amer­i­can war­ship was op­er­at­ing in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters in com­pli­ance with global rules of the sea.

Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have tried to down­play the drama of the Navy mis­sions through the South China Sea by in­sist­ing that they are sim­ply pass­ing through widely rec­og­nized in­ter­na­tional wa­ters.

Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry re­jected out­right China’s claim that the op­er­a­tion was in­tended to pro­voke an armed re­sponse from the Amer­i­can war­ship.


Ten­sions in the South China Sea are ris­ing, pit­ting China against smaller neigh­bors that lay claim to a string of isles, reefs and la­goons, rich in fish and po­ten­tial gas and oil re­serves.

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